Elisha Creech, 1917

An Oscar nominated movie compelled me to find out more about my grandfather’s service in World War I

Elisha Creech (l) and unknown friend ca. 1917

Hello, friends. It’s been awhile! I’ve spent the past two months acclimating to having my office here at home and attempting to knock some of the bigger tasks off my to-do list. I’m slowly getting there, despite some logistical obstacles.

Sibbill is my main obstacle; she likes sitting on my task list. Somehow, when I clear her off, the tasks are blurred. Yes, that’s annoying cat hair on my desk…

While my genealogical research has been sitting on the back burner as I attempt to accomplish other things, it hasn’t been ignored completely. Occasionally, I do some work on my DNA matches through Ancestry. I also took a class on doing research on my Scots-Irish ancestors (story for another day). However, most of my work as of late is focused on developing the stories of my loved ones. Simply put, I’m trying to bring these folks back to life so they are more than a sum of their vital statistics.

One person who has been elusive is my maternal grandfather, who I never knew. He died in 1948 from esophageal cancer, when Mom was 9. There are only 2 people alive today who knew him: Mom and her cousin, Gladys. Sadly, Mom only has the memories others shared with her. Gladys is 3 years older than Mom, and while she has a better pictorial memory of her uncle, everything else about Elisha Creech has been buried with the people he loved and who loved him in return.

I mentioned in my first blog post (which was about his wife) that my grandmother was not one for stories. She hardly ever discussed my grandfather, except in fleeting conversation. While I never doubted he and I would have loved each other had he survived, I never felt connected to him or his story. That is, until recently.

After being laid off from his job, my maternal cousin, Jay, has taken up genealogy as a hobby. We’ve enjoyed collaborating, and his discoveries and desire to keep his side of the family in the forefront have kept me moving on my own family, including our mutual family. Jay has organized a paternal family reunion in Texas later this month, and has been busy creating pedigree charts and involving his father’s extended family members to contribute. I’ve been his cheerleader because 1) I love him and want to help; and 2) I’m jealous he has his elderly aunt still alive to indulge him.

For the past few months, Jay has been motivated to clean out a storage unit filled with his parents’ stuff. This unit is filled with furniture and furnishings, but also contains boxes of memorabilia and photos. Most of us have never seen most of them. With his sister, Carol, helping him, Jay has been able to scan a slew of photos that are now coming to life. It’s been so fun to help him figure out who these people are. Seriously, this is the most rewarding part of doing genealogy.

Now to back up a bit. Last month, my neighbor and I went to see 1917 at the theater (on a blustery and snowy day, I might add). If you haven’t seen it, this is a plug to tell you to see it, if only for the cinematography. It’s brilliant. I was mesmerized by the endless trenches and the overall story as well as the fact that it was filmed as one continual journey without breaks. I wish I had brought tissues, and I came home with a massive headache (from crying). The movie made a huge impact, and for the first time in my life, I was now really interested to read more about World War I.

This is where 1917 and Jay collide.

He’s found several photos of our grandfather in his World War I uniform. I had seen one of them, as it is in a frame in the hallway outside my old bedroom in Falls Church. The others are new to me.

Elisha (l) and unknown people. I suspect this was taken in Minnesota upon his return in 1919

Elisha Leroy Creech was born on November 14, 1894, in a small town near Trego, Wisconsin, to James Seed Creech and Louisa Agnes Hale. He was their oldest child. Ultimately, James and Louisa had 6 children with only 2 living to adulthood. James owned the sawmill that his father once owned, and Elisha was forced to quit school after 8th grade to help with the family business. He expressed regret that he hadn’t finished school. Anyway, James moved the operation to Grand Marais, Minnesota, in 1909.

I had previously found his basic military information on Ancestry: 1) Elisha Creech left the Cunard pier in New York City, on September 10, 1917, on the RMS Carpathia as a member of the First Battalion, Company A of the 10th Engineers Forestry Division; and 2) he departed Brest (France) on the USS North Carolina and arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on February 9, 1919, as a member of the 12th Battalion and 32nd Company of the 20th Engineers Forestry Division. Other than that, we really didn’t know about his service in World War I.

Two weeks ago, Jay brought some items over to my parents to view: a few poetry books, a bible, some WWI song books and a book about the 20th Engineers. Dad is currently reading that book. One afternoon, he provided a thumbnail sketch of what my grandfather did in WWI. I was driving home with Val, but he had my complete attention. I’m a pretty visual person, and words form pictures in my mind. Instantly, I could visualize those trenches in France.

When the United States agreed to contribute to the war effort, their allies in Great Britain and France asked for trained lumbermen. These lumbermen were to assume responsibility of logging operations to reinforce trenches, provide lumber for barbed wire fence posts and railroad ties and build structures like medical outposts, mess halls and the like. Those efforts included timber management, logging, sawmill operations and distribution. Each of the companies performed specific functions, and I assume the men were placed into companies where their particular skill sets were needed. You can read more about this effort here.

As part of the 10th Engineers, Elisha Creech was in the first unit arriving in France. His unit consisted of men who were part of the US Forest Service, logging operations and private sawmills. The government placed ads in the Forestry magazines asking for enlistment. I figure he or his father saw the recruitment ad and set his course in motion.

Before I continue, I’ll let you know Mom has sent off the request from the Veterans Administration to get her father’s military records. We’ll be able to get more specifics from those records. They won’t be here before June, so some of my information is based on a calculated guess. I’ve used the information I have, along with maps and reunion information to fill in some of the blanks.

According to his obituary, he enlisted in the Army on July 17, 1917. The Cook County Herald later reported that Elisha Creech left Grand Marais on Monday, July 30, 1917, for Duluth, where he was “to be examined for admission for the Forestry Engineer Corps”. Sometime in August, he arrived in Washington, DC, to begin training on the grounds of American University. He was not yet 23 years old, and I wonder how he felt about leaving home to head to war torn France. At a minimum, he would be nervous. At most, scared to death. Regardless, he performed his duty, and I imagine that he was proud to be part of a unique group of men.

His unit arrived in Glasgow, Scotland (with a hearty and warm reception from the Scots), on October 2nd; from there, they continued the journey to Le Havre, where they docked at 5 am on October 7th. At 10 pm that evening, they boarded a train to spend the next 36 hours heading to Nevers, which was the final destination. They arrived on October 9th. They spent the next two weeks waiting for equipment to arrive and training in the mud. Much to their dismay, only a portion of the equipment had been loaded into the cargo on the Carpathia. Nevertheless, by November 1st, all the units reported for duty at their assigned posts. By December 1st, two French and one American mills were in full operation.

What information I’ve uncovered is that his Company (A) had been divided in half: one half reported to the Pontenx District and the other half to Brittany. Which group was he in? From my reading, I suspect he was in the Brittany group in Mortumier (due south of Paris). If this is correct, this was the first American mill in operation during World War I. Service at that mill began November 27, 1917, a mere 13 days after my grandfather turned 23.

In the early part of 1918, the Allied forces realized there was a need for more forestry troops; Congress authorized the creation of the 20th Engineers and ramped up training to send those men. By October 1918, the 10th Engineers merged into the 20th Engineers and their duties changed again. I’m not sure where Elisha went from there or if he moved at all. The armistice was signed one month later at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, and preparations began to return the soldiers home. I imagine that Elisha received this message from Colonel James A. Woodruff, commander of the 20th Engineers, in December 1918. While at the end of the letter, Colonel Woodruff expresses his thanks, the start of it summarizes their impressive efforts in the 15th months they were in France.

Because my grandfather was in the first group to arrive in France, he was in the first group mustered out in January 1919. When 24 year-old Elisha arrived in Hoboken, he must have called home because the Cook County News-Herald reported on February 12th that he had landed in Hoboken and would be home soon. On March 5th, the newspaper reported that he had arrived home the week before, and that all his friends were surprised at how good he looked. I would imagine they didn’t visualize the hard manual labor he had performed abroad. In less than two years, he undoubtedly transformed from a boy to a man.

I don’t know when he and my grandmother met, but just maybe their paths crossed upon his return. I imagine they found each other attractive. They didn’t marry until 1934, so this is just the musing of a romantic who doesn’t have a damn clue. They married on June 12, 1934; my grandfather was 39 and it was my grandmother’s 37th birthday. I don’t know why he waited so long to marry, but my grandmother was busy working as an elementary school teacher and putting her siblings through college. My grandmother was a caregiver her entire life, and I wish she were here so I could hug her for her sacrifices.

I wish I had asked her about their courtship and marriage when I visited her in 1992, shortly before she died. (What was I thinking???) Instead, she thanked me for bullying telling her how much I wanted her to attend my wedding in California in 1990. (She was thrilled she was able to see the Great Sequoias before she died.) She also let years of resentment seep into her conversation. Much to my shock, she told me she was mad at my grandfather for leaving her and that she didn’t want to be buried with him. I immediately tattled informed Mom and my Aunt Mary Jane, who quickly had words with her. Needless to say, I reminded her that he didn’t *choose* to die and leave her to raise their two daughters alone, and my aunt told her if she wanted to be buried elsewhere, the only way that would happen would be if she put it in writing. She didn’t do that, and they are buried together in Grand Marais. Mischief managed.

Because Mom has very little information about her father, I’ve been trying to dig up information to share with her. Through inane newspaper articles (which I consider the Facebook of its time), I found out that he played the outfield on a local baseball team. Apparently, they were pretty good because they had a winning record. Mom didn’t know that. What I know about him could fit in a thimble, and I’m working to change that.

What I DO know is that after the war, my grandfather owned a gas station and struggled financially, mostly because he had a soft heart and employed men who needed jobs during the Great Depression. Grandma quit her teaching job to stay home with her kids, ultimately returning to her profession after he died. Mom remembers him being a kind father. He loved dogs, as did his brother and parents. He ultimately became the Postmaster of Grand Marais in 1936, a position he held until the cancer rendered him unable to work. He died at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis on June 1, 1948. My grandmother wouldn’t allow my aunt or mother to attend the funeral. I’m not sure why, and I don’t agree with her decision, but I believe with all my heart she was doing what she felt was in the best interest of her daughters. They had endured the previous year watching their father’s health deteriorate. In the end, his obituary indicates that Grandma and the entire town gave him a proper funeral with full military honors and a respectable burial.

Articles printed in the Cook County Herald in June 1948
Photo courtesy of Jamie Linnel, Findagrave

I’ll be in Grand Marais this summer and plan to do a little digging around while I’m there. I hope there is more out there, but nevertheless, I’ll settle for putting some flowers on the grave. The last time I was there in 2011, the cemetery didn’t provoke strong feelings, save that I miss my grandmother. Nine years later, it will.

Author: Betsey K.

Mother of two daughters, two Siamese cats and a 3 legged dog. Genealogy hack. Research nut. Search engine proficient. Daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, niece and ex-wife. And a person who strives for balance and peace.

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